I Must Study Politics:
An Essay on the Divine Science
By Erin Reynolds
Why does the George Wythe College curriculum emphasize government—personal, family, community, state and federal? The mission of the college says nothing about preparing students for formal governmental service on any level; in fact, its mission clearly indicates the focus of the school is to build a certain type of men and women. It includes nothing explicitly about government. Occasionally I’ll talk with someone who has decided not to attend the college because of a mission or interest that lies in an area other than government. While the study of governmental principles, ideas, precedents and institutions does lead to better executed governments – more wise legislatures, more just judges and more virtuous executives – these effects are secondary. The primary effects of the study of government are less understood today. These include stronger families, better people, and more fulfilling livelihoods.
On a different but closely connected note, consider the last time the world produced a writer on par with Shakespeare; a philosopher with the impact of Plato; a composer of the caliber of Bach or Beethoven; an artist with the drive and talent of Michelangelo; or a scientist with the genius of Galileo. Such giants arise infrequently, which makes sense if we believe that talent and genius are strictly the result of fate and unpredictable, unreplicable circumstance. For those who wish to believe in a more quantifiable excellence, that answer doesn’t make much sense.
Historicism would indicate that very few commonalities exist between the fore-mentioned giants. These men came from disparate economic backgrounds, various geographies, different social strata, and remarkably different familial circumstances. Very little other than unprecedented progress unites these contributors. Coming full circle, how closely is good government related to great contributions? Does freedom produce better people or greater talent or happier humans? (If so, why is depression the leading cause of disability in the U.S.– the most prosperous, free nation in the world?[i]) And if not, then what is the purpose of liberty? And again, why the push to understand government?
From the beginning of recorded time we know that governmental ideas have been debated and contested. The questions of What is the purpose of government? and What is the purpose of man? are not new; the focus of the great debate has centered on answering these questions and others similar to them. No nation yet has found all the answers to these questions, but three key principles can be found that give insight for our day on the need for everyone to study government. These answers also reveal truths about the great contributions needed in our day, and how to prepare to make a real difference in the world.
An Internal Study
Principle One: The study of government enlightens the soul.
This study invites us to consider our own core, the source of our strength, and compels us to seek for greater light in meeting the obstacles of the world.
Near the opening of the Peloponnesian War, the great Athenian ruler Pericles addressed his fellow countrymen in his landmark Funeral Oration. Early Athenian losses had disquieted the then-world power, and Pericles spoke in favor of the war and the results he anticipated would come from the conflict, encouraging his countrymen to engage in the war with courage.
Throughout the oration Pericles praises his fallen country men for their valiance in war; he reminds those still living of their obligation to themselves and their country to support and engage in a campaign that will surely bring greater power, prestige and economic abundance; and he reminds those same people that they have more talent and resources than any other nation, making them best prepared to win what should be a simple conflict. Pericles knew the economic, militaristic and physical supremacy of his people; he had witnessed firsthand their military prestige; the force of their economic strength; and the power of her philosophic minds. No other nation had produced so much in so little time in terms of philosophy, democratic improvements and contributions to freedom. But what started as an inconvenient skirmish between Athens and Sparta, something that should have been nothing more than a brief and easily settled contest for power, ended both the Golden Age of Greece, and the economic and militaristic supremacy of Athens.
History clearly supports on many points Pericles estimation of his people. Economically and militaristically Athens was in a prime position to conquer Sparta and every other enemy of the time. What more could be necessary to win the war than a strong military, immense economic resources, and capable soldiers? Thucydides gives insight in his record of Pericles' Oration. He quotes the Athenian leader as saying, “I doubt if the world can produce a man, who where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility as the Athenian.”[ii]
Early on in the history of the world, Pericles set a precedent for neglecting the other factor of freedom. Regardless of outside resources, even independent of internal conditions, there is an influence that comes not from the world, or the self, that is key in determining the outcome of any kind of conflict. Four hundred years after the fall of Greece, Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, references this other factor. In the book of Romans, Paul councils his fellow Christians who will face in the years ahead both spiritual and physical danger, “let us . . . cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.” The imagery is clear. This armor Paul speaks of cannot be purchased – it is not dependant on economic circumstances; it cannot be conquered or won – government or force cannot dictate its presence. This "armor of light" requires an external source and an internal receptacle. Such armor precludes the idea of being entirely dependant on self; regardless of the position of the warrior, regardless of his personal talents or strengths, without this armor of light the internal battle is lost. Without this armor and the internal conditions that invoke it, the reasons for fighting cannot be sound; the result of the war cannot be worthwhile.
Pericles estimation of his warriors was that with such personal gifts and national strengths, how could they not win? Similar paradigms are seen in the philosophies of Marx, Hitler, Keynes, and others. Each of these men advocated a certain type of governmental system based on the premise that by having the right external system of things – the right military, the right biological structure, the right economic system, and so on – that order, peace and happiness would inevitably ensue.
This lesson from Pericles shows that the physical place and preparation of a people are not the only factors in determining the strength, endurance and happiness of a nation. Likewise, the study of government reveals that there are multiple factors impacting the quality of government; that without an armor that is forged internally and connected to external circumstances and people, no nation can long stand. Prosperity or freedom alone do not bring happiness or success. The answers to today’s problems will not be found in the marketplace, the classroom, or the science lab. But they will begin to be found in the study of government – a study that wherever it may begin, must end inside the individual’s own heart.
It is not impossible that much of the dissatisfaction present in today’s modern world stems at its root from the fact that many of us aren’t aware of the tangential factors that significantly impact our happiness. We apply ourselves, we go to school, and to work, and follow the patterns set by our parents and grandparents. The council to be productive translates more easily from one generation to the next than do the reasons for counseling so. The study of government brings us constantly back to the roots, or reasons, for living. It also invites us to seek for power beyond ourselves in conquering internal and external foes; it compels our goal be continually higher, and our abilities constantly greater, because it teaches the natural order of government, the sources of power, and the need for external and internal checks and balances.
An External Fruit
Principle Two: The study of government leads to creative, productive people.
This study teaches that mankind is inherently, and uniquely, productive.
The 21st Century has shown more clearly than ever before that the problems that face our world today are largely those of misproduction. Clearly we have more time and more resources than any other age, and possibly than any other nation in history. Through the Internet and other library resources we have ready access to millions of the world’s books; the world’s knowledge lies at our fingertips. Still we deal with problems such as obesity and depression that often stem more from overabundance than from insufficiency. Warfare has not diminished; new diseases, new cancers, new conflicts endlessly arise.
It may be surprising to realize that while the religions of the world differ on many points, there is one aspect on which they seem to be in remarkable unison – a point that deals with production, with the way we spend our lives and for what we spend them. Consider the following ideas from various world religions:
Hinduism “The present life was no longer viewed as the beginning end of one’s existence, rather, living beings were said to be reborn in successive lives in accordance with their actions.”[iii]
From the Upanishades, all good acts “aim at a final apotheosis in which all dualities are transcended and one realizes the fundamental identity of the self and Brahman. . . . The goal is liberation from the cycle of existence.”
Daoism: “In the texts of Laozi and Zhuangzi there are suggestions that sages transcend the world and that its cares no longer burden them. This theme was developed in other Daoist texts that extol the prowess of the ‘Great Man,’ who is portrayed as a mighty figure traveling in the remote corners of the world—and the highest reaches of heaven—without obstruction[iv], complete master of all things.[v]
From Laozi, “My delights and happiness are not of this world, how could I ever fight with it?”[vi]
Islam: “We hold that Allah changes men’s hearts . . . that Allah will come in the day of resurrection . . .. and that Allah is near his servants.” [vii]
“By means of this contemplation of heavenly forms and images they rise by degrees to heights which human language cannot reach, which one cannot even indicate without falling into great and inevitable errors. The degrees of proximity to Deity which they attain is regarded by some as intermixture of being (haloul), by others as identification (ittiad), by others as intimate union (wasl).”[viii]
Christianity: “And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh.” [ix]
“As for me, this is my covenant with them, saith the Lord: My spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of they seed’s seed, saith the Lord from henceforth and for ever.” [x]
“But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint.”[xi]
Zoroastrianism: “Then those Mazda-worshippers produce a longing for a renovation among the existences, one ever-living, ever-beneficial, and ever-desiring a Lord. ‘Then I, who am Ahura Mazda, produce the renovation according to the longing among the existences, one ever-living, ever-beneficial, and ever desiring a Lord.’”[xii]
“Then all men will pass into that melted metal and become pure.”[xiii]
“The prosperity and welfare of the spiritual existence is more than that of the world, as much as that which is unlimited and everlasting is more than that which is limited and demoniacal.”[xiv]
“That which is fit for the spirit is greater than that which is fit for the world.”[xv]
“He brings the land of hell back from the enlargement of the world. The renovation arises in the universe by his will, and the world is immortal forever and everlasting. This earth becomes an iceless, slopeless plain. Even the mountain, whose summit is the support of the Chinvat bridge, they keep down, and it will not exist.”[xvi]
Buddhism: “Thus he [Buddha] came to understand the causes and effects of actions, why beings suffer, and how to transcend all the pains and sorrows of the world.[xvii]
“This next life will begin with the conditioning of the last, and so the entire cycle will repeat itself unless a person recognizes the folly of conventional wisdom and chooses to follow the Buddhist path, which is designed to provide a way out of the trap of cyclic existence . . . When there is neither death nor rebirth, there is neither this life nor the next life, nor anything in between. It is the end of suffering.”[xviii]
What unites these disparate religions and ideas is the thought that whatever our goals may be in this life, we must not be concerned solely with the here and now. A next, another life follows this one, which is based on our acts here and whose quality depends on what we make of ourselves in this one. We are creatures of change; we are creations of creation. We were meant to create ourselves anew – surely this thought impacts how and why we institute governments in this life.
A sincere study of the nature of law reveals that while many governments begin with the consideration of shaping all elements of society to certain ends – whether that be the socially just society envisioned by Plato; the economically equal society extolled by Marx; or the religiously perfect society discussed by Augustine – the ultimate government alluded to by all major world religions is a government of transcendence. It is a self-government that impacts all other governments; it is a change of being that, in the end, actually overcomes the current state of things, breaking through the cycles of existence into an entirely new realm. Many of these world religions hail a time when a Savior or Great One will return to earth and save all followers; but just as clearly these same religions indicate that this Great Soul will return to a people who are already beginning to transform. This Savior’s visit will magnify, not initiate, a transformation of the people who greet him.
The animal and insect kingdoms may build structures or form alliances that will maximize their preservation in this world, but as the above scriptures indicate, clearly humans are given a unique role to not only perfect and perpetuate themselves and the institutions of this world: their aim is that of another existence. It is enough that the ant passes on to its posterity the mysteries of the ant kingdom, allowing generations of ants to build as it did hundreds of years before. But such is not the luxury of the human race. Our mandate is clear: we are to overcome ourselves; our present best must grow each day; our understanding of greatness and goodness must exponentially expand; as we pass on to our children and grandchildren the stories of our existence, we must also relate to them the idea that whatever we create or support in this life, we have another goal.
The study of government continually reminds the learner that there are good and bad ways to govern; that the best government allows the greatest progression; that the purposes of this life can best be understood in the context of another life, under the realm of a different Governor, and that with limited time and resources we ought to magnify as best we can all that we have and are.
A Uniting Purpose
Principle Three: The study of government is the study that most shows the interconnectedness of man.
This study is most critical because ultimately is a study of the greatest Governor, and finally of ourselves.
We cannot search for and find principles of government without being led to the Guarantor of those principles; we cannot protect and perpetuate freedom without being inspired by the Author of our liberty. More profoundly, we will never fully understand any Universal power if we cannot understand that power’s role in our daily, personal, civic, state and national lives and governments.
The study of government clearly shows we depend on each other to succeed. Christianity provided an Atonement, Buddha spoke of a Nirvana, and Zoroastrianism of an Ahura-Mazda who would compensate not only for our own weaknesses, but also for those of others. The institutions we create to protect and perpetuate liberty are key in determining what level and type of freedom we will enjoy. Those institutions include national, state and local governments; they also include family, community, business, educational and religious structures without which we are not really human.
John Adams’ oft-cited letter to his wife helps sum up why it is we must study government:
The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain. (Letter to his wife, Abigail Adams, May 12, 1780.)
He could have as easily written “Without liberty, the fruits of mathematics and philosophy, geography and history, poetry and music are all held hostage to the confines of time. The tragedy of the Dark Ages was not so much a lack of production. The tragedy was the direction of the things produced – things built and written and recorded in response to darkness, terror, repression.”
Before we start painting and writing and singing, we should recognize we have a more fundamental obligation. Not that our study of government must once and for all exclude the study of mathematics or geography or music. But certainly without the foundation of a correct understanding of laws and their nature we cannot sincerely hope that our letters and paintings and mathematics and scientific discoveries will lead to anything like freedom. Indeed, they cannot.
Thomas More's Utopia literally means "no place," and veritably it is no place, not in the past, nor the present, nor the future. Mankind cannot enjoy the fruits of liberty (peace, prosperity, transcendental impact,) without paying the price for that thing. There is no path to Utopia; it is an island happened upon, or wrecked upon, pointless either way because the privileges enjoyed therein, without investment, help no one, move no one, save no one.
Mises never addressed the idea that once in a great while a human will give something for nothing. Buddha once enlightened was ready to die, to “remain silent in the forest” but a heavenly angel would not let him. He bade him arise and tell the world, or all who would listen, about the path to happiness. But why did Buddha arise from the foot of the tree? And why did the angel appear? And who sent the angel? Without a more comprehensive understanding of the family of man there is no explanation. Without the study of government, we cannot gain a more comprehensive understanding of man. Before getting lost in the debate of whether or not selflessness is even possible, let’s not forget the fundamental point of the debate: that the interconnectedness of mankind is inevitable.
The type of men and women that truly understand government are those who are prepared to leave behind what is good because they, alone, are able to recognize what is best. They are willing to risk “what is in it for them” when “what is in it for everyone” is at stake. They are capable of building better homes, better communities, better nations, better worlds, because they have paid the price to know what is most important, where that comes from, and what it takes to actually transcend.
I, for one, am convinced that the world’s greatest talents are yet to arise. If they do not arise in a land of liberty, I believe they will arise because of a land of liberty. As we overcome the challenges that have plagued the world’s inhabitants for all of time, we will close those final steps towards eternity and whatever it holds. The unifying factor between Galileo and Plato, Michelangelo and Beethoven is that each one of these talents overwhelmed the evidence to the contrary and proved that the known boundaries of greatness were nothing more than illusions. The greatest illusions of our day are that our freedom is either totally lost, or inevitably secure. In fact, neither one is true. The future weighs on our shoulders.
In closing, the study of government seems to inevitably lead the serious inquirer to one of two conclusions: either that man and society are finite, limited and capable only of dreaming of lasting peace and fulfillment, or that there is a Universal Power who is loving, merciful, and willing to secure a destiny of peace and joy for all mankind. The Utopia of Thomas More, the Millennium of Christianity, the Republic of Plato, and the Nirvana of Buddhism may all point to either no-where or everywhere. They each promise that we are either doomed to repeat inevitable cycles of history, personally, nationally and universally, and that their existence can be nothing more than an ephemeral ideal, or they betray the possibility of attaining unprecedented achievement, even in this life. History is either a curse, or it is an invitation. Its knowledge compels us to conform to theories of self-evident evolution, or to claim an inspired origin and defy patterns of time. Students of government, of history, must ever be divinely, or rationally, discontent. And if discontent, let us move forward with the assurance that our greatest efforts will bring a magnificent conclusion.
Erin Reynolds is the Director of Distance Studies at George Wythe College. Erin holds an M.A. in Education from George Wythe College and is currently pursuing a PhD in Constitutional Law. She has taught at primary and secondary institutions, and is a published author. She serves on the board of directors of the Motherhouse Foundation, and is head of the publishing wing.
[i] The World Health Organization. The World Health Report 2004: Changing History, Annex Table 3: Burden of disease in DALYs by cause, sex, and mortality stratum in WHO regions, estimates for 2002. Geneva: WHO, 2004.
[ii] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, Strassler, Robert B., trans. Crawley, Richard, Free Press, 1998, New York, NY.
[iii] Fieser, James, Scriptures of the World’s Religions, 3rd ed., McGraw-Hill, 2004, New York, New York, 5, 6.
[v] Ibid. 204; 103.
[vii] Ibid. 447.
[viii] Ibid. 443.
[ix] Ezekiel 11:19
[x] Isaiah 59:21
[xi] Isaiah 40: 31
[xii] Fieser, 248.
[xiii] Ibid. 249.
[xiv] Ibid. 242
[xvi] Ibid. 250
[xvii] Ibid. 82.
[xviii] Ibid. 86